Maya Wegerif, who you may know as Maya The Poet, lets her heartache and joy loose through written and spoken word poetry. The young artist had her first poem published when she was 11 and has kept returning to the medium since – “from necessity usually,” she says. In her latest piece ‘Sometimes It Pours’ performed and filmed at Lac Rose in Senegal, Maya speaks powerfully – but with tenderness – about the covert acts of racism she experiences daily. Through her candid poems she navigates complex issues of race and identity; “Stop trying to define and decide who I am and who I’ll be. No, I decide who I am and under which category I go, I hope you know. I’m mixed race and honestly, I’m doing just fine,” she proclaims in ‘Black and White (they call me)‘. We spoke with Maya to find out what home means to her, how art helps us heal, and her dream of shaking Africa free of neo-colonialism.
As someone who has moved around quite a lot from South Africa, to Tanzania, to Massachusetts and Dakar – do you consider any one place home?
My concept of home has had to expand. I think I could feel at home now almost anywhere on the African continent. There is something about Africans that is familiar enough for me, that I do not feel sad here.
How have these movements or migrations influenced your work and outlook?
Moving keeps me sharp. You know, when you go to a new place, you point out things that the locals say, “Yeah, that’s funny I never really noticed that.” In a way, moving a lot is the lazy way of keeping my eyes open.
You were named after Maya Angelou, so the path you’ve chosen seems very fitting. How old were you when you started writing? Have you ever considered pursuing anything other than poetry?
Haha yes, too fitting, I sometimes think. I have no idea when I started but at the age of 11 a poem of mine was published. So it must have been before that. As for doing something else, yes, all the time I think of doing something else. And I have done and still do other things. But I keep returning to poetry. From necessity usually.
What is it about the performative nature of spoken word that attracts you?
I don’t know. Instant gratification? Rap? Maybe being a control freak and dreading the idea of people reading my work and not getting the right rhythm and therefore missing the whole idea.
Do you find it challenging to share your most personal experiences through spoken word, or is the act a liberating one?
Performing is generally a very scary experience for me. When it goes well I feel a huge relief. And that’s when I have connected with an audience.
Your latest spoken word piece is a deeply touching and tender poem titled ‘Sometimes It Pours’. Please tell us about some of the events and feelings that led to you writing this?
Oh man. Every day I experience some act of covert racism. The other day I was out with a white friend of mine and I ordered at the counter. Later the manager came to our table and asked her to remind him what we wanted. Never mind that I ordered and I was paying. Every single day it’s this over and over. But I wanted to write a poem that was not directed outward, to white people, to racists. That takes so much work and does not achieve much healing. So this is not a poem that begs white people to acknowledge that racism exists. It is a poem directed inward to myself and to people who experience racism. Talking about when we’re alone with ourselves. Like I said, “when the judge gets off and the bartender goes home and you’re left with the late night work of …”
This brings me back to what I said about writing poems out of necessity. Sometimes I am haunted by situations in my life where I think I should have or could have acted better – reacted sooner – and this one night I was kept awake by the incident that happened after I was arrested by racist cops in the States. And I was in court but didn’t stand up for myself in the way I would have wanted to. This one night I couldn’t get over it for some reason. And it was about three in the morning and I woke up and I was just crying uncontrollably. So I decided to go for a run and I did at the beach near our place. It was still a bit dark by the time I got out there and I was writing the poem in my head just weeping about all these experiences. If I don’t react at all to small acts of daily racism I experience, but even if I react with sass or anger, I am still never really sitting down and taking a tally of the collective damage that it does to one’s psyche. That night or early morning was that for me. And I didn’t stop crying until I had the whole poem.
There’s a line where you say, “It’s as light as rain gets, but it still rains down on you”. This metaphor of ‘light rain’ is one used by Claudia Rankine to describe microagressions. In your experience, how have words helped you make sense of things, work through things, and heal?
This is so vital. Isn’t this the whole reason art is consumed? Because it puts words to, a melody to, an image to some of the pile of bewildering experiences that make up our lives? When someone like Claudia Rankine (whose book is simply invaluable) describes a feeling you have, or a situation you experience, especially one that so many people, white and black, try to tell you isn’t happening, you feel like someone sees you. Which is all we really need anyway, other than food and water.
Not so long ago you tweeted “Traumatize your kids so they can be good writers”. Although you said this humorously, do you think that some form of trauma is a necessary ingredient of good art, no matter the medium?
Haha! Yes, to be frank. No one wants to read about your pleasant, no issues, no confusion having life. I was discussing this with the legendary Ayi Kwei Armah recently. I asked him whether he thought it was possible to be a good writer and have no good stories. So first he said no and then later we discussed that there is one benefit of not having trauma, especially group trauma from racism and imperialism and things of that nature, which is that you don’t have an obligation almost to deal with those issues and are thus free to delve into fantasy and science fiction and detective novels and the like.
In your piece ‘Why You Talk So White’ you address an encounter you had with an African American woman around your accent. There’s a growing dialogue around language in South Africa, and only this year did it become compulsory for schools to offer an African language (not counting Afrikaans) from Grade 1 and up. Though you’re multi-lingual, you predominantly write in English. What are your thoughts around language and its ties to identity?
Wow I have so many. I’m writing a new poem, it’s not out yet but I’ll give you a preview of one of the lines which I think is apt here: I have learnt too much about speaking from those who speak badly of me.
The work of African artists who operate from Africa and the diaspora is being shown increasingly at international fairs and galleries, like the recent “African Perspectives” focus at the Armory Show in New York. Do you think that “African” is a useful organizing concept for art?
Interesting question. I would have to give this more thought and get back to you.
Who are some of your literary heroes? And who are the young writers you feel are making a significant mark right now?
Oh man. There are the obvious ones whose work I am obsessed with; Li Young Lee, Marie Howe, Chris Abani, that crew. Youngsters, Koleka Putuma is causing a delicious stir and I want to see more of her stuff, Lebohang Masango who is a devastatingly good writer, ah guys there are so many!
And lastly, what do you hope to achieve through your poetry? What matters most to you?
I write the poems so that they may save me, if I am being honest. And if they save someone else that’s really fantastic as well. My life’s goal is to help shake this continent free of neo-colonialism. That there are only very young and very old people in my village upsets me, the cardboard shopping malls that are popping up like pimples all over my village’s face, enrage me. So I want to dream up a blueprint for a more equitable and sustainable type of society (especially outside of cities) and then work to implement that, first in my village, and then maybe it will be copied elsewhere. And if I can use poetry to help achieve any of this, I will.
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